Wednesday, February 26, 2014

True/False 2014, Preliminaries: Women and Men

Big Men (2013, directed by Rachel Boynton)

The True/False film festival returns to my fair city this week. I've been to every edition of True/False in some capacity. The last two years, I've had the privilege of serving on the screening committee, so I've seen a few of the films playing at the festival already. As was the case last year, this didn't make picking my schedule any easier, but it does let me write about several movies ahead of the opening of festivities. As usual for True/False, there are a host of films that are overtly political mixed in among films with smaller and quirkier concerns. I used to think that True/False was curated with this in mind, but the zeitgeist in documentary filmmaking is self-assembling, even in the slush pile. No assembly required.

Ukraine is Not A Brothel (2013, directed by Kitty Green)

The Femen, a feminist collective from the Ukraine who stage sexually provocative topless protests, are highly controversial in feminist activism. The nature of their protests elicits a certain amount of distaste from some sectors. The depiction of the movement in Ukraine Is Not a Brothel (2013, directed by Kitty Green) is unlikely to change minds about them. Indeed, it is more likely to throw gasoline on the fire.

The film itself enters the lives of four of the women who form the core group. Director Green and her cameraman lived with these women for months, filming their protests and the planning behind them and interviewing the individual members. Their motives vary. One woman finds self-esteem in her nudity. Others are are political idealists. Still others do it at the behest of the group's shadowy organizer. The organizer provides the film with a mystery. The footage of the protests themselves is chaotic, which is understandable given the guerrilla nature of their activities. The filmmakers follow the Femen to Turkey, where they've been imported by admirers (who give off the vibe of lecherous creepers, truth to tell), and to Belarus. The trip to Belarus is a lacuna. Green's footage was seized and she was expelled from the country. The Femen themselves were abducted and taken to the woods to be beaten before their own expulsions. This part of the film has the logic of nightmares and the gaps of black frame are ominous.

One of the criticisms of the Femen is that their protests cater to the male gaze. You could argue that if you want to call attention to patriarchy, you first must cater to it, though many activists will quote Audre Lorde's assertion that the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. The filmmakers are careful to keep the the Femen's ringleader off camera for most of the film--though there is a short horror-movie-esque opening that plays with the organizer's identity. The careful dance around the motivations behind the Femen gives the film an epistemological shiftiness one associates with thrillers. This is a film with a plot. That plot is not going to deflect the group's most vocal critics. If anything, it will intensify them.

Still, it's a timely film, given the world's gaze at Russia and the former republics this late winter. Pussy Riot, subjects of another film at a previous festival, have been arrested again for feminist protests. The Ukraine is in political turmoil. The Femen are just one more piece of that puzzle.

Big Men (2013, directed by Rachel Boynton)

Big Men (2013, directed by Rachel Boynton) casts a much wider net. It's the documentary as epic, following the fortunes of Ghana and their off-shore Jubilee oil field. The narrative surrounding those oil fields are a bitches brew of African politics, oil politics, the nature and uses of capitalism, the uses of war, and the hubris it takes to seize control of the world's resources. This is a film populated with Big Men big and small, from Texas venture capitalists to militant rebels on the Niger river. The action of the film unfolds over the course of six years, and during those six years, the Ghanians struggle with how best to use their windfall, while the rest of the world circles waiting to see how they jump.

The main storyline follows the fortunes of a wildcatting start-up who find the Jubilee oil fields. They're small fish, but they get there first and have to hold on to shifting fortunes to get a payoff in the end, a payoff that becomes more and more elusive as time goes on. The obstacles: A shifting political situation in Ghana--the government that sold them the exploration lease is voted out once the payday becomes visible. The economic crash of 2008. Competing economic models: the chaos of nearby Nigeria where militants sabotage pipelines or the the Norwegian model, which is more egalitarian and socialist. The film is built around men who think of themselves as important in the process. One by one, they're forced out, their illusions punctured.

My immediate reaction to this was to marvel at the access the filmmakers had to all phases of this story. This is a film that was filmed over the better part of a decade and that patience pays off in both the scope of the narrative and in the relationship the filmmakers have with their subjects. It's not surprising that a Texas rancher might give access to his new business to a bunch of filmmakers. It's flabbergasting that rebels hiding out in the Niger delta would give them that same kind of trust. My second reaction is related to this: the militants in this film are damned charming. They're articulate and pragmatic, even when hidden by balaclavas.

This is a film that sets its interview material against spectacular backdrops. This isn't an intimate film and the figures--the big men of the title--are filmed in wide compositions as if they are larger than life actors on the world stage. I don't know if the film means to mythologize these people, but it can't help it sometimes. There's a romantic element to the story of the feisty entrepreneur duking it out with multi-national corporations or of the minor official suddenly thrust into vast responsibilities only to find himself slandered with accusations of corruption. The narrative thrust of the film takes its cues from thrillers rather than other documentaries. It's effective.

Big Men is probably too long, but I'm inclined to forgive it. It has a LOT of story to tell, and it's still defined by what it doesn't look at in its negative spaces. We don't get an insider look at the machinations of Exxon or the Nigerian government, for example. The government of Ghana also becomes more opaque to the filmmakers after the election that changes the regime. The results of their actions are visible in the film, but there's not a face put to them.

I wonder if there's a coded critique of masculinity here. Given the gender of its director and its double entendre of a title, I wouldn't be surprised. That there are practically no women of note in the mix on screen is a little bit damning. Petro-politics as dick-measuring contest? You could certainly make the argument.

In all, it's a troubling film.

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